GARDINER (AP) – Sgt. Scott J. Couture can finally relax. After 20 months of ducking bullets and witnessing maiming and killing, Couture can sit in a lawn chair in his back yard and watch his two young sons saturate a garden with hoses.

Couture never envisioned being gone for so long when his Army Reserve unit, the 94th Military Police Company, was deployed to the Middle East.

He initially expected to be gone for six or seven months. But the tour of duty was extended twice, leaving families heartsick and some soldiers physically ill.

Now he can enjoy his sons, 4-year-old Wyatt and 6-year-old Lane, who are getting used to having daddy home again. He and his wife, Darcie, are planning a three-day getaway to Quebec to get reacquainted with each other.

“If it’s one thing I’ve gained, it’s an appreciation for what I have, family, friends,” Couture said sitting near his wife, a stray red-and-blue ribbon on the ground along with a remnant of a “Welcome Home” balloon.

“I have a couple of neighbors who came over,” he said. “They mowed my lawn and snowblowed my driveway while I was gone. It gives me hope. Not only did I not go over there for nothing, but I was defending people like that.”

The 94th is based in Londonderry, N.H., and has a Maine-based detachment in Saco. Members also come from Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The soldiers had been home for about a year after serving in Bosnia when members were deployed again in December 2002.

The unit arrived in Iraq in April 2003. Twice they were ready to leave when their stay was extended in Kuwait and Iraq. At Easter, they were hours away from boarding their plane when they were told to wait.

“It was nothing short of devastating,” Couture said. “Some people were physically sick, sobbing.”

The company may be the longest-deployed unit to have served in Iraq, and possibly the longest-deployed Reserve unit since World War II.

Couture, 37, thinks he came through it all relatively well partly because of his age and life experience, partly because he knew his wife and children were safe at home. Couture has been home since Aug. 4, the day the company was formally dismissed at a ceremony in New Hampshire.

“I feel overall pretty healthy about it,” he said. “I have a hard time sleeping sometimes and the floodgates open sometime, but I don’t think that’s unhealthy. I feel very comfortable talking to my wife about it. And one thing I’ve always tried to do is, I wrote everything. I found it cathartic.”

Without e-mail for the first year, Couture wrote long letters by hand, telling Darcie about what he saw and what he did. Couture said others in his unit sugarcoated their experiences so their families wouldn’t worry.

Later, the unit set up a police academy in Ramadi and had a computer room there where they could send e-mail.

“It was very bizarre,” he said. “I’m reading an e-mail she just wrote me and hearing heavy fire and seeing the tracers.”

Now his children are monopolizing his time and he’s relishing chores like picking them up from the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Gardiner. He missed Lane’s entire first year of school, and has missed three of Wyatt’s four birthdays.

“I don’t think they’re completely convinced I’m home for good,” Couture said.

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